Going Public with the High Yella Black


Lee R. Haven

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 102 in 1999.

The black black versus the high yella black.

Writer Alice Walker calls it colorism. She says it's a major problem in the black community--so much so that just as DuBois predicted that color would be America's main problem of the 20th century, Walker believes this insider struggle of different hues would be black folk's chief burden of the 21st century. To give an example of colorism's power, Walker points out that, in matters of what she calls black black women wondering if prominent black men will chose one of them, "it is sometimes everything we think about," she says.

I remember a girl in my high school--still today, one of the most attractive females I've ever seen--who was also very, very dark. A dark popular guy said he would "ask her for the go" because she was obviously fine, but you know he also had that dark thing to contend with, especially the combination of both being nearly literally black. I don't think I'd ever seen someone wrestle so hard about anything. You would have thought he had a legitimate dilemma.

It may be hard for some to picture this now, but it was pretty much standard fare to say it was very possible to be too black, the same way it was a kind of compliment to say someone was dark but pretty, or a pretty black girl. Many blacks wondered about the fashion sense--if not the mental state--of a black black person, and especially a black black woman, who wore too much white. She was also to avoid dark red, light red, yellow, black, and, come to think of it, I don't think I ever heard what color she was supposed to wear.

A high-yella women was supposed to marry a high yella man, of course, but exceptions could be made if the man was very successful. And they had to be very careful about the exceptions because there was always the matter of wondering what kind of hair the children would have.

This colorism is perhaps the dirtiest of black people's soiled laundry, dirtier than black-on-black crime, which is hardly on the down-low anymore, although reasons implicating the majority society certainly are; the color game is the dirty laundry black people really don't want whites to know about. It's embarrassing, for one thing. Here you are complaining that whites assume certain privileges because of the lightness of their skin, and you're doing the same thing in your black world. It also questions-- dramatically -- the Movement assumption that blacks are morally superior to other, read that white, people. Black people take their morality business seriously when engaged in struggle with whites. They could use it, for example, to explain why blacks can take so much punishment from white folks. Anybody can hit somebody back, but a man, in a kind of revisionist definition of the species, is bigger than that, the assumption goes. It was a moral one-up-manship that, thanks to all those television cameras showing how law enforcement officers abused black demonstrators, played a large role in shaming America into passing civil rights laws.

Blacks could wallow in that aspect of morality without having to answer another aspect of their struggle that smacked of immorality, and that is the game of color they played among each other.

Clarence Thomas is a traitor, true; that's easy to call. But have you ever heard his stories from back-in-the-day in Savannah (yes, the traitor is technically a homeboy) when he was disparagingly called ABC--America's Blackest Child--by other blacks?

Black communities in Southern cities especially--like New Orleans, Charleston and, my old stomping ground, Savannah--built little societies around color. In Savannah during the turn of the century, to give you an idea of how bad the situation was, there were allegedly two Episcopalian churches for African Americans--one for light African Americans and the other for dark African Americans.

Whites profess ignorance or confusion about this black phenom, and they probably are confused on one level since they see blacks primarily as blacks, whatever their literal color. White enmity, however, is not that democratic. To the contrary, whites play an integral role in determining the black color-caste system. If the lighter you were as a black the better your chances for gaining employment, guess who, as a byproduct of running the country, was doing most of that hiring?

And a great deal of the black color-caste fell into the white blood-is-thicker-than-mud department since most of the high yellas were the offspring of white men who, while not looking out for them as they would their white children, still looked out for the yellas on some level. Many of these men, for example, built several of what we now call black colleges --then called "colored colleges"-- for their mulatto offspring, according to Atlanta historian Skip Mason. A black historian in Savannah--a man who also runs one of the funeral businesses in town--said that, in a weird kind of exchange program, white fathers in Savannah would often send their mulatto offspring to Charleston for friends to sort of look out for, and vice versa.

But because black was discovered to be beautiful in the mid-60s on, those attitudes changed. Or at least people have enough sense to not verbalize it. Of course, you would never guess that in Atlanta, a municipality in which you hear guys still saying things about looking for "redbones." But then, this town on a hill does other things as if the black power struggle never found its way up here, or that if it did, tired out from the metaphorical climb, or got the heck out of Dodge, er, Atlanta, after running into these reactionary cultural altitudes. But there were always the nasty reminders, even outside this city. People saw on TV that the love interests of those brother singers in the videos were almost always light, even if they weren't pretty, or fine, which was, after all, supposed to be the point.

Successful men still married, for the most part, women who were lighter than them. Alice Walker's informal survey during the '70s revealed that even the most militant of the black power guys (even Marcus Garvey) had light mates. She contends that Malcolm X, a high yella brother, although closer to the dirty-red variety, is so loved by black women because he married a black black woman.

Anyway, with all this mess of a history, is it any wonder why blacks still harm each other day in and day out; those brothers who actually kill each other are simply the extreme of an ongoing larger, but not as literally murderous, self-hate.

So what to do about all this? There's probably very little to be done unless material conditions are changed--that is, when blacks appear to be winning. No, make that when blacks are winning, or getting back what they lost when brought over here and other parts of the Western Hemisphere as free laborers--when they return to controlling the space they occupy.

I think Clarence Thomas said that, as a youth, he saw blacks as being such chumps, and that is why he did not wish to associate with them. We're always on the outside begging folks who have historically kept us out to let us in, he said.

It's easy to see how he could see that, although the sentiment hardly forgives the life he has chosen to lead as an adult. It is as if folks have to come up with a new set of rules to deal with us, and we with them, when in actuality we don't. (As in what's with all the civil rights bills when you've got a Constitution?)

It's probably cool that Malcolm cooled out a lot of sisters with his marital decision, but his greatest achievement is that he elevated the black struggle to a human struggle. You don't want any special treatment, he said. Nor should your oppressors receive any. He said handle your business, or your struggle, as anyone else would in your circumstances. It wasn't going to be easy and you may be surprised what you have to do. But he guaranteed us this. You won't have time to play skin--or any other kind of--games.